U.S. Department of Education will investigate Central Bucks School District, following ACLU complaint alleging ‘hostile’ environment for LGBTQ kids

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Lilly Freeman holds up a that helped her transition at a rally ahead of the Central Bucks School District’s vote to remove books perceived to have sexualized content from their libraries

File photo: Lily Freeman, a Central Bucks County East High School student, held up a book that was helpful during her transition at a rally ahead of the Central Bucks School District’s vote to remove books perceived to have sexualized content from their libraries on July 26, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is investigating the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s complaint against the Central Bucks School District.

The complaint alleges the district has created a “hostile” learning environment for LGBTQ students, intensified by a recent flurry of what the ACLU says are “discriminatory” district policies, behaviors and directives.

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The OCR will now act as a “neutral factfinder,” analyzing evidence from the ACLU, the district and other sources.

The agency enforces Title IX, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. The agency wrote in a notice to the district and the ACLU that “Because the District receives federal financial assistance from the Department and is a public entity, the District is subject to these statutes and their implementing regulations.”

The ACLU tweeted on Friday that it’s “no big surprise” that the U.S. Dept. of Education decided to investigate. “The evidence we collected was overwhelming. And awful.”

In a statement on behalf of Central Bucks School District, Board President Dana Hunter responded to the OCR’s notice by doubling down on her request for the ACLU to release the names of the students involved in the complaint “so that the allegations can be investigated and addressed.” Hunter made the same request during October’s general school board meeting.

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“We asked the ACLU for this information over a week ago, but it has refused to provide it,” Hunter said. “Thus, instead of being focused on the protection of students, the ACLU is more interested in making political points in the press.”

But the ACLU filed a federal complaint rather than a court case to keep the names of students, who are minors, private, according to ACLU attorney Rich Ting. Students, families, and district employees fear retaliation from the community and the district.

“Teachers and guidance counselors, they’re afraid because of a lot of things that they’ve seen happen which are outlined in the complaint,” Ting said in a WHYY interview.

ACLU of Pa. Legal Director Vic Walczak said the district already knows who the bullied students are. “They are the ones the administration and board have ignored and disrespected.” Walczak said.

The complaint alleges bullying has gone on for years against LGBTQ students, especially transgender kids, and that district administration had been aware of the “pervasive” harassment.

It states that the district has demonstrated a “chronic failure to take reasonable and necessary measures” to address the bullying.

The district also exacerbated the “toxic” environment for LGBTQ kids with a series of directives, behaviors, and policies, like ordering teachers to remove Pride flags, directing teachers to not use students’ correct gender pronouns or names without parent permission, punishing staff who speak out against anti-LGBTQ directives, and administering book censorship policies.

The OCR notice reminds the district that it can’t coerce, intimidate or discriminate against any person involved in the complaint. If it does, the ACLU can file another complaint to the OCR and the ACLU could file their own lawsuit.

According to the OCR, if the district is interested in a resolution, and the OCR believes the resolution is appropriate, the agency may negotiate an agreement with the district.

The families involved in the complaint want the Department of Education to order the district to “rescind its discriminatory policies and directives” and to order the district to follow federal recommendations for creating an inclusive and supportive school district for transgender and gender non-conforming students.

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